Dan Rattiner's Stories

Flatulence: Martians Emit a Grand Hello to Earthlings

The planetary rover Curiosity has been wandering around on Mars for more than two years now without encountering any Martians. It seems to have been reinforcing the long-held belief that there is no life on Mars, that it is a barren planet, perhaps made barren many centuries ago by great battles between opposing sides who soon destroyed each other, leaving nothing behind but those strange Martian canals. So sad. Better to look for life on Venus. It’s surrounded by clouds, so that makes it hard. But Venus is a better choice.

Well, now we have discovered something on Mars. When they found it, it was “an ‘oh my gosh’ moment,” according to Christopher R. Webster, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California, when interviewed by a reporter from The New York Times.

The thing found was methane gas. Methane is the gas that gets emitted from the back of sheep every once in a while, or from the back end of men, or of dogs who are sitting next to women, as the joke goes. There is a buzzing noise. Then the smell of methane gas. Then it seems to dissipate.

Methane is a gas byproduct of the digestion of food. It tends to develop toward the end, both figuratively and literally, when what’s not digested breaks down and can’t get out. It’s a part of life.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be coming out the back of Martians. Unless they are much like us.

For the first year that Curiosity was roving around on Mars, just small traces of methane were found. These amounts matched up with the amount expected from incoming cosmic particles hitting the planet. But then, quite suddenly, there was dramatic smell of methane and the needles recording methane on the Curiosity went wild. They were recording levels 10 times higher than the trace levels. And these levels remained for two months in late 2013 and early 2014. Then they went away.

The scientists didn’t tell anybody when this was happening. They kept it to themselves because they wanted to check their data. Perhaps this was a case where the equipment was faulty. Perhaps there was some other unknown reason. Recently, however, the scientists published these results as actual in the latest issue of Science magazine. Something very large, probably underground because we don’t see anything, was storing up vast amounts of methane from a digestive process and then, in January of the Year of our Lord 2013, began to emit this record quantity of gas up and out through some crevice or another up into the atmosphere, where it hovered for two-and-a-half months. Then it was gone.

For the record, methane does not just hover around and then vanish by rising up into the air and out into the atmosphere like helium does. Its existence results in a chemical reaction among itself and sunlight and other things to result in a transformation to a different chemical compound that does not smell. Who knew? Well, you learn something new every day. The upshot, though, on Mars anyway, is that somewhere, something was creating it, then it was dissipating.

Of course, there are naysayers, other scientists who point out that a sudden emission of methane can also be caused by a certain process called serpentization, which requires both heat and water. It’s also possible that this methane comes not from one enormous creature underground, but from billions and trillions of microbes living together who suddenly decide to emit this methane. Or maybe this sudden burst was emitted by accident—perhaps when some container of methane rusts
through underground.

But then, Curiosity, after more than a year of digging, has in addition to this methane just stumbled upon a stash of carbon-based organic molecules in a core sample of one of its recently found rocks on Mars’s surface. Carbon-based organic molecules do not necessarily mean there is life on Mars, past or present. But it does mean that there are the necessary chemicals on the planet to create life.

One final thought. Here on earth, the creation of methane in our bodies is something that we do not control. It just happens. Or we feel it is about to happen, hold it back for awhile and it comes out later. What we do control involves another orifice in our bodies, in the front. It is here we take stuff in to digest. We, and the other animals, also communicate through this orifice, with barks, baaaahs, roars or, with us humans, sophisticated language.

Could it be possible that on Mars communication comes from the back end, using blasts of methane? There’s something up there on the surface poking around. Let’s give it a big hello. Welcome to Mars.

Gasp.

THE HYPERLOOP
Elon Musk, the creator of the Tesla car, the SpaceX rocket and other such scientific improvements, has developed the Hyperloop, a way to transport people long distances, sitting inside capsules inside vacuum tubes, in short amounts of time. There is almost no friction. The capsules can travel at speeds close to 800 miles an hour. So, for instance, a trip in one of his tubes from New York City to Southampton would take about 7 minutes.

Last year, Musk presented his plan to a California transportation board considering the creation of a high-speed rail connection between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Those trains would go 180 miles an hour and take two hours. The cost to build the rail connection would be $68 billion. Musk’s tubes would cost $6 billion, he said, would take 20 minutes a trip and cost a traveler about $20 to $30.

Musk asked heads of Silicon Valley corporations to help by volunteering to check his work for accuracy. Last week this group said yes, it is correct, though to build it might be $7 billion to $16 billion—still far less than the rail plan.

California is taking it under advisement.

AN IBUPROFEN A DAY KEEPS THE DOCTOR AWAY
A research team at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California has produced a paper saying that daily doses of ibuprofen (such as Advil) not only keep aches and pains away but also extend life spans by 15 percent. They fed the stuff to flies, worms, yeast and bacteria. All lived 15 percent longer. For humans this could be an extra 12 years. Give it a try?

MAGIC LEAP
A new process developed by Floridian Rony Abovitz of the firm Magic Leap combines mobile computing and real-life visuals to create three-dimensional images that look absolutely real. He plans to shortly create a wearable product so consumers can enjoy the experience on demand. He’s published a video of Magic Leap where you can see a tiny 3D elephant performing in the palm of your hand.

Exactly how it is done has not yet been made public, but investors such as Google, Qualcomm, Legendary Entertainment, KPCB and others have already raised more than half a billion dollars so that Abovitz can develop his product.

GLOBAL COOLING
We humans are now powerful enough to throw enough carbon up into the atmosphere to alter life on earth as we know it before the end of this century. Yet, though we are developing ways to slow that process down, nobody is working on a process to reverse it. You’d think this might be an international priority. Carbon up, carbon down. But what do I know. I just live here.

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